'Che' Director Steven Soderbergh On Creating His Controversial Epic

Benicio Del Toro in 'Che'Contributed by Rodrigo Perez

Chronologically speaking, there’s a reason why uber-prolific filmmaker Steven Soderbergh started grappling with the idea of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara right after the time he finished “Erin Brokovich” in 2000.

For one, writing and research on the sprawling 4-hour-plus two-part “Che” took seven years to get just right. Secondly, when he agreed to inherit the movie from legendary director Terrence Malick, Soderbergh felt he was firing on all cylinders and at the top of his game, so he felt now was the time to take on such a an epic beast.

“Part of my reasoning for saying yes [to the ‘Che’ project] was that I had just come off making ‘Erin Brokovich’ with Julia Roberts nad had the sensation that: ‘This was the right movie, the right actor, the right time.’ Everything had lined up,” he told MTV News remembering the era fondly.

“When [producer] Laura Bickford and [lead] Benicio del Toro floated this idea past me, part of me felt thought, ‘He’s the right guy. It’s an interesting subject, you should say yes,’ even though underneath that I had a feeling that it was going to be ugly and difficult.”

And his predictions were correct. After spending a year on research and a year writing screenwriter Peter Buchman handed over a version of the film that almost distorted history it was so super condensed. The director was learning along the way who this Argentinian-born contentious political icon was and once he had absorbed the entire screenplay he realized they needed a second movie to fill it all in, which caused several more years of writing.

“I really didn’t know anything about him,” Soderbergh admitted. “I think that’s why the first iteration of the movie was about Bolivia only [the second film now known as “Guerilla”]. “I was gravitating towards the period of his life I knew the least about. That’s where we started and then it just kept expanding.”

The director realized, that before he shot the story of what would eventually be the rebels’ downfall, he had to show the context of what brought him there: his victory alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba.

An unorthodox “biopic” to say the least, there is no traditional cradle-to-grave arcs to the story. In fact, the film is more a guerilla warefare procedural than it is a lionizing hagiography of one immense and divisive historical figure. But through the challenges Che and his rebels faced and the choices they make, we learn who Che Guevara was, warts and all.

“I’m a big believer into paying attention to what people do as opposed to what they say,” the director said of his action speak louder than words approach to the tale.

Part One: “The Argentine” drops you off a few months after Fidel Castro landed in Cuba in the fall of 1956 to start the revolutionary campaign to overthrow the corrupt dictatorial government. Part Two: “Guerilla” chronicles the fated 11-month campaign that attempt to bring a similar revolution to the South American country of Bolivia. Both are shot in unsentimentalized modes that are near documentarian in manner.

In fact, Soderbergh resisted the urge to do a more typical biopic citing “Lawrence of Arabia” and its mostly warfare-laden story as an influence.

“[‘Arabia’] is only interested in the period of his life where he became a combatant. Similarly, I felt these two periods were Che at a moment in which all of his beliefs are being enacted at the same time. He was an ideologue and he also knew how to use a gun. I wanted to see him with all of those colors flying at the same time.”

Amazingly enough, the two films shot in five different countries in a blisteringly short two and a half months (by comparison, “Apocalypse Now,” the long version of which still shy of fours hours filmed for over 16 months). The ambitious work was a labor of love. “Nobody got paid so its all on the screen,” Soderbergh chuckled.

To lead actor Benicio Del Toro taking on such an iconic and important role and to portray it in such a hyper concentrated amount of time was daunting. But much like the abbreviated and some say, subjective story the film tells, the actor worried about what was onscreen and let the rest, including the mental and political baggage go.

“So there’s only so much an actor can play, there’s only so much I can play,” Del Toro told MTV. “You just play the moment, that’s all you can do. I think that whatever the polarizing things are about it, they’re hinted in the movie, but you could do never cover it all.”

Received with protests when it screened in Miami, the filmmakers realize Guevara is a character beloved by some but reviled by others. Del Toro is all too aware, but the actor insists one has to understand the context of the radical times before one leaps to judgment.

“On CNN, they called the Obama election a ‘silent revolution’ of some sort, and it’s interesting to see how the times have changed and are different now. The 1960s were volatile, it was a decade that made the ‘90s look like popcorn. The 60s were really intense: Vietnam, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba [the first elected Prime Minister of the Congo in Africa in 1961] all these people killed, Malcolm X.” We could make a list, but… But understanding who Che was in that time… he was a warrior, a product of the ‘60s, those were different times. The idea of having a black president in the United States was impossible.”

“Che” release plan is a unique one. Starting December 12th, the two films played in New York and L.A. for one week as one four-hour-long film with an intermission. With that run concluded, "Che" will re-open on January 9th in New York and Los Angeles as two separate admissions titled "Che Part 1: The Argentine" and "Che Part 2: Guerilla."

The national rollout for 25 markets will begin January 16 and 22 and will expand further following those dates. For those that would rather absorb its panoramic girth all at home, IFC will make the films available OnDemand on January 21, making it available to 50 million homes nationwide on all major cable and satellite providers in both standard and high definition versions.

Personally, we say the experience is well worth it.